How PR Can Claim Social Media for Its Own

Martin Waxman

Too many PR agencies are doing social media the way ad agencies do PR. Of course, I'm generalizing when I say this. But I've been in lots of meetings where ad folks equate PR with publicity—for the ad campaign.

And while publicity/media relations is still a fundamental part of our job, it's not the be-all and end-all—unless, that is, you happen to be a publicist and your goal is generating loads of that proverbial buzz.

Unfortunately, we can draw a similar analogy when it comes to PR and social media. Too many firms claim they understand it, yet simply add blogger outreach or Facebook page management to their services toolkit.

They’re paying lip service to what they see as a potential revenue stream and don’t want to take the time to learn the intricacies of social media and understand how it’s altering the landscape and where it fits. They’re putting the “what” ahead of the “why.” And that’s not good for their agencies or the profession as a whole.

Many have said that PR people are well-positioned to take a leadership role in social media. We understand relationships, storytelling and two-way communication. We’re trends experts, conversationalists and inherently social. We may need some work to brush up on our visual storytelling skills (something the ad industry does extremely well), but that’s doable. 

So what’s the problem? It stems from two things:

  1. People are too comfortable with their current knowledge set;

  2. Learning requires energy, a fresh approach and time.

With some notable exceptions, the change in agencies seems to be coming from younger practitioners and not the top. And while I applaud the new generation and all it has to offer, there’s complacency at the leadership level that could be toxic to our profession’s long-term reputation and credibility.

Social media is not the silver bullet. But it offers us a new way to practice and build relationships. It lets us go back to the foundation of PR and, if I can reference communications theorist James Grunig, engage in two-way symmetrical communications and consensus-building—his model for the highest level of communications excellence.

Here are four essentials I believe every PR agency must do to thrive in social media:  

  1. Listen: It’s the first step, and it needs to happen both online and off. We must monitor conversations, listen to what influencers are saying and pay attention to some of the forward-thinking practitioners we work with. 

  2. Learn: Too often we let our experience get in the way and fall prey to the been-there-done-that mentality. Instead, we need a wake-up call to open our minds and adopt a student’s attitude of discovering, testing, learning and applying.

  3. Participate: One of the things that sets social media apart is its DIY nature. We have to find time to try the tools, analyze and critique them and then advise our clients on the best course of action. But we can’t be everywhere at once (and still do our work). We have to use our practical knowledge to strategically select the platforms where we (and our clients) will have the biggest impact. 

  4. Practice: That is, we must alter the foundation of our practice. We need to be brave enough to admit to our clients that, like media, the traditional PR model is broken. But it’s also evolving and we can guide them along the way. We need to learn how tell stories visually as well as we do with words. And we need to abandon incomprehensible corporate-speak in order to help organizations build trust and engage with people in a human voice that’s compelling, believable and easily understood. 

We can take a leadership role in social media. Many agencies are doing just that. I am a senior counselor with Thornley Fallis Communications in Toronto and, alongside the traditional PR folks are video producers, developers, community managers, researchers, designers, analytic experts, content creators...You’ll find that mix in many forward-thinking PR shops.  

Social media is not an add-on. It’s the new normal. And if we fail to adapt, we may find ourselves relegated to being publicists to the blogosphere and little else.  

Martin Waxman, APR, is principal of Martin Waxman Communications, a social media consultancy, and senior counselor with Thornley Fallis Communications in Toronto. He’s a member of PRSA Counselors Academy’s executive committee and is the chair of the organization's 2012 Counselors Academy Conference. He blogs at myPalette, is one of the Inside PR podcast hosts and can be found on Twitter @martinwaxman.


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